A drugs gang that sold £1.38 million worth of heroin and crack cocaine used local addicts in Dawlish and Shaldon to run the local branch of their operation.

The Liverpool based crime group recruited addicts John Ward, Benjamin Hopkins and his partner Joanna Buchanan to help them store or sell drugs and pass back thousands of pounds in takings.

They also based themselves at the Finlake Caravan Park when they first came to Devon to set up their network of dealers in early 2021, returning there at least once during the next 20 months.

Benjamin Hopkins and Joanna Buchanan were both drug users living in Shaldon who became involved because they needed drugs to feed their habit. They were also found with three cannabis plants when police raided their home.

A courier who was intercepted by police on his way from Shaldon to another dealer’s home in North Devon was carrying £22,400 cash which may have been the proceeds from previous sales.

Addict John Ward was using five bags of heroin a day (Devon and Cornwall Police)

Hopkins had £14,000 worth of heroin when he was arrested but only a small amount of cocaine, which was deemed to be for his own use. He was in regular contact with gang leaders Christy and Georgie Keating, who he knew as G Man and Matey with the teeth.

The couple allowed their home to be used as a base for others, with a female dealer from Hayle making visits to them and to Newton Abbot to pick up drugs before returning home.

Another addict living in Dawlish has been jailed after he was seen meeting a courier outside the town’s station and handing over a package to another near his home.

John Ward was using five bags of heroin a day, costing him around £350 a week, when he became involved with the gang in February 2022. He was seen meeting two members of the gang just yards from his home in April of that year. His number was stored on their phones as his nickname Geezer.

He was jailed for three years by Judge Anna Richardson, who told him she could not suspend his sentence because he is still using drugs and alcohol and had fallen asleep during an interview with probation officers at which he was being assessed for a possible drug rehabilitation order.

In addition to the three defendants who lived in the area, the gang also had other links, principally with the Finlake Resort at Chudleigh, where leaders Benjamin Burns, Christy Keating and Georgie Keating all stayed while setting up their network in early 2021.

The gang then targeted seaside towns in Devon and Cornwall and used a camper van to tour the area and  expand its operation into holiday resorts.

Heroin seized by police in Operation Harbinger (Devon and Cornwall Police)

The gang ran 36 drug lines and were so successful that its leaders were spending half their time in Ibiza by the time police closed down their operation autumn last year.

The conspiracy was based in Liverpool and recruited couriers who made almost weekly trips to the West Country, setting up the first network in Exmouth in February 2021 before moving on to Torbay and Cornwall.

The dealers stayed at Airbnbs, Leisure parks and holiday camp sites including one on the Lizard where the camper vans was parked while the Cornish operation was being set up.

The 20-month-long plot involved 21 men or women, 38 drugs lines, and 33 courier trips which brought an estimated 8.8 kilograms of heroin and 6.6 kilograms of cocaine with a total value of £1.38 million.

The police seized thousands of pounds worth of drugs and £30,000 cash during five different vehicle stops and were able to trace tens of thousands of pounds passing through the gang leaders’ bank accounts. They traced more than 20,000 messages sent to users in which drugs were offered.

The leader of the conspiracy was 25-year-old Benjamin Burns who made 15 trips to the South West, including several with his girlfriend Dannielle Marshall, and bought a specially adapted phone which hid its true number and was intended to throw the police off the scent.

The next three most important members were Thomas Keating, his son Christy and cousin Georgie, who all made frequent trips to Devon and Cornwall, including using the camper van.

The gang had stashes of cash from their trade (Devon and Cornwall Police)

All of the leaders took regular holidays to Spain and Burns ran the final two drugs lines from Ibiza. The dealers sometimes flew back to Britain and hired cars at the airport to head straight to the South West.

The operation was broken up by a major police operation which included surveillance in Exmouth, Teignmouth and Camborne and relied heavily on phone evidence which showed not only how the group kept in touch with each other but also showed the movements of the main players.

The gang received jail sentences totalling 86 years and two months years from Judge Anna Richardson at Exeter Crown Court. She told them that drugs have a devastating impact on the lives of users and on society.

She said the gang had exploited local addicts in Devon and Cornwall who were recruited to help the conspiracy through the offer of free drugs or pressure to pay off debts which they had run up as a result of their habit.

Lesser members of the organised crime group, including Burns’s partner and sister and many of the local addicts who became part of the distribution network, received suspended sentences totalling almost ten years.

Miss Chloe Griggs, prosecuting, said the inquiry, codenamed Operation Harbinger Two, was intended to identify those controlling street dealers ‘from the top down’.

The conspiracy began with deliveries to the first Exmouth-based drugs line in February 2021 and run until the final arrest when Thomas Keating was caught bringing heroin worth £68.600 and 13 kilograms of amphetamines worth up to £160,000 into Devon in late September 2022.

The police used extensive surveillance and were able to estimate the total value of the drugs by calculating the number of trips in which they were brought to the South West from Liverpool.

Subsequent analysis of phones allowed police to work out the links between the 21 people involved and to track the movements of the camper van through Cornwall and Devon.

Important meetings between the main players were found to have happened at Finlake at Chudleigh, in Polperro, the Lizard and Bude in Cornwall, and at two different houses in Exmouth.

Lawyers representing the other the defendants said they were drawn into dealing by their youth, naivety, drug addiction, debt, or difficult personal circumstances.

All these defendant admitted or were found guilty of conspiracy to supply heroin or cocaine or both and received the following sentences.

Gang leaders.

Burns, aged 25, of Warwick Drive, Padiham, Burley; 10 years 6 months.

Thomas Keating, aged 44, of Woolfall Crescent, Huyton; 10 years.

Christy Keating, aged 24, of Dorothea Crescent, Widnes; 10 years 5 months

Georgie Keating, aged 24, Cromford Road, Huyton; 11 years 5 months.


Kevin Mallen, aged 41, of Lincombe Road, Liverpool; 6 years 4 months.

Christopher Mallen, aged 65, of Nyland Road, Knowsley; 6 years.

Other Liverpool based dealers.

Jake Myers, aged 23, of Gladcia Close, Huyton; 3 years 6 months.

Jamie Marshall, aged 22, of Burham Close, Penge, London; 6 years.

Lee Paton, aged 34, of James Holt Avenue, Kirkby; 2 years 7 months.

Taylor Burns, aged 31, of Ottershaw Gardens, Blackburn: 5 years 2 months

James Casey, aged 45, of Woolfall Crescent, Liverpool; 2 years suspended for 2 years.

Devon and Cornwall based:

Richard Morsley, aged 43, of Muckworthy, Ashwater, near Holsworthy; 4 years 6 months.

Dillon Ballard, aged 29, of Pershore Road, Birmingham, and formerly of Parrys Farm Close, Exmouth; 2 years suspended for 2 years.

Adrian Mulcahy, aged 36, of Pershore Road, Birmingham, and formerly of Parrys Farm Close, Exmouth; 2 years suspended for 2 years.

Benjamin Hopkins, aged 46, of Shoreside, Shaldon, Teignmouth; 2 years suspended for 2 years.

John O'Neill, aged 51, of High Street, Exmouth; 5 years 6 months.

Demelza Trewartha, aged 48, of Higher Trevithick, Hayle; 2 years suspended for 2 years.

John Ward, aged 55, of East Cliff Road, Dawlish; 3 years.

Three defendants admitted lesser offences. They are:

Joanna Buchanan, aged 49, of Shoreside, Shaldon, Teignmouth: admitted assisting an organised crime group and production of cannabis. 12 months suspended for 2 years.

Maggie Burns, aged 21, of Homer Road, Knowlsey; 12 months suspended for 2 years.

Dannielle Marshall, 27, of Wichling Close, Orpington; both admitted money laundering and assisting an organised crime group. 18 months suspended for 2 years.

John ONeill from Exmouth 'played a key role' (Devon and Cornwall Police)